The 1970s are often cited as the dominant era of original filmmaking. The decade ushered in a wave of new auteurs fresh out of film school, eager to prove themselves with high concept ideas and reverential technique. Avoiding the “movie brat” route, a young New Yorker named Peter Bogdanovich used his position as a film programmer at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to self-educate. Eventually, he turned his encyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema into a full-time writing gig for “Esquire” magazine. Building his portfolio, Bogdanovich opted to follow in the footsteps of his idol François Truffaut and turn from critic to movie director. After all, technical competency is but a small component of grasping the language of cinema.
Bogdanovich set out to prove that all those years watching the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and countless others would make him just as capable behind the camera as any USC graduate. What he wanted to avoid was branding himself like his peers were doing. Preserving the essence of great filmmaking also meant developing a unique vision so he could be more than just a respectable imitation. Instead of using genre as a selling point, Bogdanovich had the brilliant idea of engaging with the nasty, repugnant and censored side of American history to reveal its tragic modern consequence.
Though his career peaked during the ’70s, there is no disputing Bogdanovich’s lasting impact on future directors with their own radical and unflattering depictions of America. Seeing Bogdanavich’s subversive films succeed financially and win Academy Awards meant almost anyone (excluding non-white males and females) could challenge the status quo without being driven out of Tinseltown. This month, the Criterion Channel uploaded three of the auteur’s most essential movies to consume: “Targets” (1968), “The Last Picture Show” (1971), and “Paper Moon” (1973).
“Targets” is one of the most disturbing American films ever made, and easily cinema’s boldest directorial debut. Before “Taxi Driver‘s” Travis Bickle and “Joker‘s” Arthur Fleck, there was Bobby Thompson. This straight-laced, Christian-reared young insurance agent has a doting wife and adoring parents who think the world of him. Bobby’s cushy life includes prayer before supper, outdoor hunting, and a middle-class suburban existence. Unlike modern films that trace the origins of a killer, Bobby doesn’t come from a broken home, nor was he abused or dealt a bad hand in life. He’s as apple pie as white America gets, and Bogdanovich argues this privileged facade makes him even more dangerous.
The story doesn’t waste time understanding the psychopathic nature of this madman, who goes on a sniping spree after murdering his family. The script calls attention to the ease of gun access in this country, exacerbated by the primitive sport of hunting. The bond between guns and masculinity has been a part of American soldier iconography since the nation’s founding. As weapon technology evolves and disillusionment remains steadfast, mass shootings will continue to be a rising norm. The scariest part of “Targets” is the normalized response to brutality. Those fleeing sniper-fire react instinctively, almost as if knowing a mass shooting at a movie theater or other public venue is inevitable. Bogdanovich’s first time controlling the lens demonstrates a deep understanding of what America’s embedded issues are without posturing messianic sensibility.
With six Oscar nominations — including “Best Picture” and “Best Director” — and two wins (Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson for their respective supporting performances), “The Last Picture Show” is Bogdanovich’s undisputed magnum opus. Creating an instant masterpiece that forever reshaped the coming-of-age story, the director realized all future endeavors could never live up to this heralded cultural exposé. Teenage sexuality, small-town scandals, and uncertain futures were never addressed during the 1950s. This period was all about chasing the American dream through consumerism. But what if you didn’t have the money to become the Cleavers from “Leave it to Beaver?” Television and its media conglomerates forget about the poor working class, especially those in Middle America. In these forgotten places, everyone knows each other’s business, and no one ventures outside their local grid.
The prospects are as follows for young men in these outskirts Texas communities: enlist in the army or find a local trade. Big dreams of making it on their own are shot after blowing through meager savings two states into the journey. Women out of high school must either go to college and hope they meet their future husband on campus, or marry someone local so their parents can rest assured they’re provided for. There is no upward mobility for these kids, which is why they cherish high school so much. Those four years provide free room to experiment with wild abandon. Then, they must resign themselves to a mundane existence like their folks before them. The tragedy behind the film’s title is both symbolic and literal: hopeful aspirations are squashed just as the local movie theater shuts down permanently — death by television.
Finally, “Paper Moon” subverts the notion that the Great Depression of the 1930s left everyone resigned to their own destitution until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” swooped in to save the day. As we know, America is nothing without its fight and resilience. This adaptation of Joe David Brown’s “Addie Play” underscores how even the youngest and poorest of citizens maintained their grit to weather the collapsed economy. Father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal play possible first-degree relatives who find each under mournful circumstances. Tatum O’Neal plays Addie, a young girl whose mother has just passed away. At the funeral, Addie spots an adult man with a jawline that’s unmistakably her own. This familiar man, Moze, offers to send her by train to her great-aunt and uncle’s home. However, recognizing their potential blood relation and the need to earn a quick buck in dire times, they form an unlikely partnership to keep on keeping on.
The two are a natural pair of con artists, especially Addie, who exploit every situation to her favor without cruel dispensation. Moze and Addie run a scam to sell overpriced bibles to recently deceased family members as a faux final purchase gift. The successful duo may be swindlers, but they have hearts of gold, and only choose this enterprise because of the helpless alternative. Bogdanovich uses his narrative as an exhibition of ends justifying means, especially when abiding by the law means guaranteed poverty.
“Paper Moon” is ahead of its time (even then) by giving audiences a fully-formed black female supporting character whose inner life we’re privy to. P.J. Johnson’s Imogene details what led to her trapped re-enslavement (unending work with no pay or time off) by traveling entertainer and occasional prostitute, Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn). Bogdanovich has no illusions that slavery continued back in the 1930s despite emancipation, just under the guise of hired help. This horrific reality — validated by a young black girl through her own words — forces white spectatorship to swallow a hard pill of historical truth long avoided.